The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Bird Songs Mean Springtime
by Ro Wauer

It takes only a few sunny days to encourage our songbirds to begin singing. Even some of our wintertime-only species get the urge, although their songs are less emphatic and never as complete as they are on their breeding grounds later in spring. But our full time residents already are actively singing, some on a territory they will begin defending as the season progresses. Even if you are not an active birder, you are likely to recognize most of the resident's songs.

For instance, the cardinal's songs are loud and distinct, usually described as "wheer, wheer, wheer" or "hew hew hew." Some of the cardinal's notes can be similar to those of Carolina wren's. But the Carolina wren's song can be so varied that it can be confusing. Just in my yard I have heard them singing the typical "tea-kettle" song, while a few minutes later they will give a "wheedle, wheedle, wheedle" or "goad-it, goad, goad-it." It often takes a very discerning ear to recognize a Carolina wren. Of course, the songs of Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice are reasonably easy, "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" and "peter-peter-peter," respectively.

Some of the other easy to recognize songs include the killdeer's "kill-dee," the crow's "caw," the blue jay's "jay" or "thief," the white-eyed vireo's "chick-a-per-weeoo-chick," and the mockingbird's various and extensive singing. The mockingbird's repertoir can contain a weird assortment of notes, and often contains those of other birds. For the most part, folks know more bird songs than they usually give themselves credit for knowing. But as the spring progresses and we begin to hear songs from some of the returning nesters and migrants that are just passing through, it can get rather complicated.

I must admit that, in spite of spending the last 40 years watching and listening to birds, I find myself relearning some bird songs every spring. Some of the songs are easy to remember one season to the next, but others are more difficult. Certainly, hearing the first warble-song of a returning purple martin or a chipping song of a chimney swift is no problem. But migrating warblers often are more difficult.

Learning bird songs is easiest when accompanying an experienced birder in the field. He/she can point out the various songs, providing truly important insight into the world of birdsong. Some folks learn bird songs very well from CDs or tapes, and with the current technology, one can actually take the sounds into the field. But it is still a matter of targeting the individual to learn its particular song.

When asked about how best to go about learning bird songs, the key answer is repetition. See the bird and hear its song over and over again. Sometimes the use of mnemonics, the act of translating the sounds into human speech, works. "Bob-white," "kill-deer," "whip-poor-will," and "chick-a-dee" are easy. But others songs are less workable. And although some birding experts never utilize mnemonics, I find it very useful. It at least makes one listen to the bird's song, and forces one to separate phrases or syllables into some sort of order. And it can also be fun. Making up your own renditions can actually enhance the learning process.

However, lots of folks who love the outdoors and listen to birdsongs and enjoy the various seasons, never care about learning the birds. Although those of us who study birds and do annual surveys to better understand birds and the changing environment, must know the songs, others can appreciate our natural resources without the identity of the birds. More power to them!

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Are You Prepared for Purple Martins?
by Ro Wauer

Already purple martins are being seen along our coast with a few also being reported inland. So, if you have been waiting for the first scouts to appear, don't wait. Now is the time to get your martin houses ready. That means cleaning your houses, getting rid of the spiderwebs and insects that may have taken over since the rightful tenants vacated last summer, and reinstalling it. Sometimes the martin house will also require a fresh cover of white paint. The light color helps to reflect the hot Texas sun and also to highlight the entrance holes.

In case this is your first time at attracting martins, here are some easy rules to follow:
. Step one is to acquire a martin house. They are readily available at many retail outlets. The single-story houses are not recommended.

. Houses must contain apartments with at least a 6x6-inch floor space and an entrance hole 11/4 inch in diameter and 1 inch above the floor.

. Houses must be placed on poles 12 to 20 feet above the ground and should be 40 feet away from taller trees, poles, and other structures.

. Poles must be free of vines and shrubs that might allow access to the house by predators.

. Houses must be free of nesting materials and other debris that accumulated in the off-season.

Purple martins often are rather finicky at the start but seem to put up with shorter poles and poorly maintained structures once the colony is established. Most birds are repeats, but the majority of the first-year birds (usually last year's youngsters) seek out a new martin house, usually in the general area of their natal homesite. This means that a new martin house, especially if it is in the proximity of an active martin house, is likely to be used early on. Distant houses are not as likely to be selected.

If you are attempting to attract martins to a new site for the first time, once martins have returned to the general area, it sometimes works to play a tape of their dawn chorus in the vicinity. Playing purple martin songs at a new martin house will certainly attract their attention.

And if they like the surrounds, they will probably remain and nest. If not, give it time, and sooner or later you will attract martins, usually first-year birds, that will begin a new colony.

An established purple martin colony is likely to return year after year so long as you maintain the house and environment. They will consume millions of flying insects during the short time they are with us. And they will also provide us with their marvelous songs from long before dawn to throughout the day and evening. But by mid- to late July they will leave our neighborhoods and begin their 5,000-mile southward migration to their wintering grounds in South America.

But rather than think about their departure, think first about their arrival. It is now time to prepare. Good luck!

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Birds of a Feather
by Ro Wauer

The old adage that "birds of a feather flock together," referring to a flock composed of all the same species, is true much of the time, but not always. A quick look at anyone's bird feeder is certain to dispel this ancient adage. Feeders are attractive to a variety of species, especially those that utilize seeds. For instance, my seed feeders currently are supporting chipping, Lincoln's, and white-throated sparrows; mourning, Inca, and common ground- doves; Carolina chickadees; tufted titmice; pine siskins; American goldfinches; and northern cardinals. Even eastern phoebes and Carolina and Bewick's wrens hang around to sample insects that are attracted to the handouts.

My birdbaths are just as busy. They attract all of the above species as well as a number of non-seedeaters, such as robins, cedar waxwings, blue jays, mockingbirds, white-eyed vireos, and orange-crowned and yellow-rumped warblers. I have seen times when my birdbaths are circled by a mixed flock of robins and waxwings; they readily accept the other's presence.

Many birds do congregate in groups of a single species, although closely related species are also likely to be imbedded. For instance, various blackbirds, such as common and great-tailed grackles, cowbirds, and even redwings and starlings roost together. And robins, that return each evening to a favorite roosting site, tolerate a few additional species, such as waxwings, among them. Most of these birds also forage for food in a flock, especially during the winter months. The robin is the exception. Although robins roost overnight together in huge flocks, and usually go out together in the morning hours to find food, they seem to utilize separate feeding territories. This time of year, after they have claimed the majority of the ripe berries, they are spending considerable time alone, foraging for insects and earthworms. They actually partition their feeding grounds, a method that provides for a wider range of options and benefits the individual. Birds at a feeder do not require separation.

Flocking or "togetherness" is beneficial to various birds for several reasons. For instance, turkey vultures, a bird that usually roosts and feeds with others, also partitions its feeding grounds, often soaring alone while searching for carrion. This behavior allows them to cover a more extensive area. And when carrion is discovered by one individual, the others very soon gather together to take advantage of what the one individual has found. This same type of searching is also used by various pelagic birds that are required to cover an extensive area of ocean to find an adequate food supply. Once found, dozens of others, often including additional species, gather together to feed in what might properly be called a "feeding frenzy."

Another benefit of flocking, beyond the greater potential for finding food, is a defensive one. With an increased number of eyes, a bird in a flock is less likely to be caught by a predator; at least one member of the flock is likely to warn the others. At times, when a flying flock of individuals are widely spaced, they will suddenly close ranks (ball up) and even change direction on sighting a hunting raptor. The predator then is less likely to separate out one individual for capture. A sudden bunching will serve to form a solid wall that the predator will not want to dive through.

Anyone spending time in the field cannot help but marvel at a flock of flying birds that suddenly bunches up, flying at a great speed only inches away from another, and then veers one way and then another. Such flight is but one more of nature's wonders.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Importance of Wetlands
by Ro Wauer

What with the abundant dialog of late about our water resources, it might be a good time to include a brief discussion about our wetlands. These areas are some of our most important and most at risk of all our natural resources. They have seriously declined ever since 1764 when George Washington chartered the Dismal Swamp Company to drain 40,000 acres of the Great Dismal Swamp so it could be timbered. In the mid-1850s Congress gave 65 millions acres of wetlands, an area the size of Arizona, to states, urging them to "reclaim" and sell them. And between 1940 and 1960 the U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidized the drainage of another 60 million wetland acres for farmlands. More than ninety percent of California's, Connecticut's, and Iowa's wetlands are gone. Although George Bush declared, during his first presidential campaign, that he wanted to be "the environmental president," and also declared that all wetlands, "no matter how small, should be preserved," the administration pressed Congress to eviscerate the federal wetland program and to weaken the wetland provisions of the Clean Water Act. The result has been a continuing loss of wetlands. At the current rate, half the remaining wetlands in the U.S. will disappear in less than a hundred years.
The most threatened of our wetlands is the freshwater systems, the inland marshes, wet meadows, ponds, bogs, bottomland, hardwood forests, and swamps. Although these types of wetlands are often misunderstood or misidentified, here are some brief descriptions: Bog is a peat-accumulating wetland with no significant inflow or outflow of water, supporting mosses, especially sphagnum. Bottomland occurs along rivers and streams, usually alluvial and periodically flooded; when forested they are often called bottomland hardwood forests. Marsh is a peat-accumulating wetland drained from surrounding soil and generally supporting marshlike vegetation. Pothole is a shallow, marshlike pond, found particularly is the prairieland of North America; an important breeding area for waterfowl. Slough is a marsh or slowly slowing swamp in the Southeast or a swamp or shallow lake system in the northern and midwestern U.S. Swamp is a wetland dominated by trees and shrubs. Wet meadow is a grassland with waterlogged soil near the surface but without standing water most of the year.

Previously considered of little or no value, our wetlands today are recognized as precious resources for nurturing wildlife, purifying waters, checking the destructive power of floods and storms, and helping to recharge groundwater supplies and maintaining water tables in adjacent ecosystems. The inland wetlands provide habitats for freshwater fish and wildlife, including one-third of all the bird species in North America. They also are valuable for recreation and growing a wide variety of crops. And in many areas, including South Texas, these important resources are being considered for watering places outside our own hydrological basins.

Wetland protection is beset by a tangle of federal laws and regulations complicated by widely divergent interests at state and local levels. Ultimately, action to save our remaining wetlands must be initiated by Congress, the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other federal agencies, and by an administration truly concerned with the long-term health of this country's natural resources. Although a 1982 Louis Harris survey showed that 83 percent of the U.S. population believed it "very important" to preserve the nation's remaining wetlands, they continue to decline. It is time for the American public to speak out.